For the past few years, a startup called Matternet has been testing out autonomous delivery drones in developing countries like Haiti, Papua New Guinea, and Bhutan. Now, the company is getting ready to release a commercial version of the $5,000 quadcopter, called the Matternet One. Pretty soon, the on-demand economy may be staffed by these drones.
Matternet, a Silicon Valley startup that originated at Singularity University, initially tested its drones for medical use in places where roads and last-mile delivery routes are hard to access. In Papua New Guinea, for example, Matternet worked with Doctors Without Borders. The company’s quadcopters transported dummy payloads of patient samples over the air. A journey that would normally take a few hours by car took 55 minutes with a drone (with a stopover at a fixed landing station for charging).
“Once you have a diagnosis, that same system can be used to transport medicine [to the patient]. It’s a bidirectional system,” says Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos.
Matternet’s commercial drones, which can fly in rain and wind, will focus more on general logistics. “Imagine Whole Foods connected to Google’s campus with an on-demand shipping service,” says Raptopoulos. On a single charge, the Matternet One can carry an item weighing 2.2 pounds more than 12 miles.
The drone is designed to be dead simple. Anyone with a smartphone can connect to the Matternet One, enter in a destination, and watch it go. The drone, equipped with a 3G or 4G SIM card, comes up with an appropriate route–one that avoids airport flights paths and other obstacles–and goes on its way. Throughout its journey, the drone stays hooked up to guidance software in the cloud.
According to Raptopoulos, Matternet will focus on business to business customers first (including small businesses), but the company isn’t opposed to selling direct to consumer eventually.
Depending on where its customers are located, Matternet will have to deal with drone-related regulatory hurdles. In the U.S, FAA drone regulations are still being worked out. “All of our work so far has been with the approval of regulatory agencies where we operate,” says Raptopoulos. “We want to show that it can really work, that it’s reliable.”